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Moonfleet/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER 17
AT YMEGUEN

As if a thief should steal a tainted vest,
Some dead man's spoil, and sicken of his pest—Hood


'Tis bitterer to me than wormwood the memory of what followed, and I shall tell the story in the fewest words I may. We were cast into prison, and lay there for months in a stone cell with little light, and only foul straw to lie on. At first we were cut and bruised from that tussle and cudgelling in Aldobrand's house, and it was long before we were recovered of our wounds, for we had nothing but bread and water to live on, and that so bad as barely to hold body and soul together. Afterwards the heavy fetters that were put about our ankles set up sores and galled us so that we scarce could move for pain. And if the iron galled my flesh, my spirit chafed ten times more within those damp and dismal walls; yet all that time Elzevir never breathed a word of reproach, though it was my wilfulness had led us into so terrible a strait.

At last came our jailer, one morning, and said that we must be brought up that day before the Geregt, which is their Court of Assize, to be tried for our crime. So we were marched off to the court-house, in spite of sores and heavy irons, and were glad enough to see the daylight once more, and drink the open air, even though it should be to our death that we were walking; for the jailer said they were like to hang us for what we had done. In the court-house our business was soon over, because there were many to speak against us, but none to plead our cause; and all being done in the Dutch language I understood nothing of it, except what Elzevir told me afterwards.

There was Mr. Aldobrand in his black gown and buckled shoes with tip-tilted heels, standing at a table and giving evidence: How that one afternoon in August came two evil-looking English sailors to his house under pretence of selling a diamond, which turned out to be but a lump of glass: and that having taken observation of all his dwelling, and more particularly the approaches to his business-room, they went their ways. But later in the same day, or rather night, as he sat matching together certain diamonds for a coronet ordered by the most illustrious the Holy Roman Emperor, these same ill-favoured English sailors burst suddenly through shutters and window, and made forcible entry into his business-room. There they furiously attacked him, wrenched the diamond from his hand, and beat him within an ace of his life. But by the good Providence of God, and his own foresight, the window was fitted with a certain alarm, which rang bells in other parts of the house. Thus his trusty servants were summoned, and after being themselves attacked and nearly overborne, succeeded at last in mastering these scurvy ruffians and handing them over to the law, from which Mr. Aldobrand claimed sovereign justice.

Thus much Elzevir explained to me afterwards, but at that time when that pretender spoke of the diamond as being his own, Elzevir cut in and said in open court that 'twas a lie, and that this precious stone was none other than the one that we had offered in the afternoon, when Aldobrand had said 'twas glass. Then the diamond merchant laughed, and took from his purse our great diamond, which seemed to fill the place with light and dazzled half the court. He turned it over in his hand, poising it in his palm like a great flourishing lamp of light, and asked if 'twas likely that two common sailor-men should hawk a stone like that. Nay more, that the court might know what daring rogues they had to deal with, he pulled out from his pocket the quittance given him by Shalamof the Jew of Petersburg, for this same jewel, and showed it to the judge. Whether 'twas a forged quittance or one for some other stone we knew not, but Elzevir spoke again, saying that the stone was ours and we had found it in England. When Mr. Aldobrand laughed again, and held the jewel up once more: were such pebbles, he asked, found on the shore by every squalid fisherman? And the great diamond flashed as he put it back into his purse, and cried to me, 'Am I not queen of all the diamonds of the world? Must I house with this base rascal?' but I was powerless now to help.

After Aldobrand, the serving-men gave witness, telling how they had trapped us in the act, red-handed: and as for this jewel, they had seen their master handle it any time in these six months past.

But Elzevir was galled to the quick with all their falsehoods, and burst out again, that they were liars and the jewel ours; till a jailer who stood by struck him on the mouth and cut his lip, to silence him.

The process was soon finished, and the judge in his red robes stood up and sentenced us to the galleys for life; bidding us admire the mercy of the law to Outlanders, for had we been but Dutchmen, we should sure have hanged.

Then they took and marched us out of court, as well as we could walk for fetters, and Elzevir with a bleeding mouth. But as we passed the place where Aldobrand sat, he bows to me and says in English, 'Your servant, Mr. Trenchard. I wish you a good day, Sir John Trenchard—of Moonfleet, in Dorset.' The jailer paused a moment, hearing Aldobrand speak to us though not understanding what he said, so I had time to answer him:

'Good day, Sir Aldobrand, Liar, and Thief; and may the diamond bring you evil in this present life, and damnation in that which is to come.'

So we parted from him, and at that same time departed from our liberty and from all joys of life.

We were fettered together with other prisoners in droves of six, our wrists manacled to a long bar, but I was put into a different gang from Elzevir. Thus we marched a ten days' journey into the country to a place called Ymeguen, where a royal fortress was building. That was a weary march for me, for 'twas January, with wet and miry roads, and I had little enough clothes upon my back to keep off rain and cold. On either side rode guards on horseback, with loaded flint-locks across the saddlebow, and long whips in their hands with which they let fly at any laggard; though 'twas hard enough for men to walk where the mud was over the horses' fetlocks. I had no chance to speak to Elzevir all the journey, and indeed spoke nothing at all, for those to whom I was chained were brute beasts rather than men, and spoke only in Dutch to boot.

There was but little of the building of the fortress begun when we reached Ymeguen, and the task that we were set to was the digging of the trenches and other earthworks. I believe that there were five hundred men employed in this way, and all of them condemned like us to galley-work for life. We were divided into squads of twenty-five, but Elzevir was drafted to another squad and a different part of the workings, so I saw him no more except at odd times, now and again, when our gangs met, and we could exchange a word or two in passing.

Thus I had no solace of any company but my own, and was driven to thinking, and to occupy my mind with the recollection of the past. And at first the life of my boyhood, now lost for ever, was constantly present even in my dreams, and I would wake up thinking that I was at school again under Mr. Glennie, or talking in the summer-house with Grace, or climbing Weatherbeech Hill with the salt Channel breeze singing through the trees. But alas! these things faded when I opened my eyes, and knew the foul-smelling wood-hut and floor of fetid straw where fifty of us lay in fetters every night; I say I dreamt these things at first, but by degrees remembrance grew blunted and the images less clear, and even these sweet, sad visions of the night came to me less often. Thus life became a weary round, in which month followed month, season followed season, year followed year, and brought always the same eternal profitless-work. And yet the work was merciful, for it dulled the biting edge of thought, and the unchanging evenness of life gave wings to time.

In all the years the locusts ate for me at Ymeguen, there is but one thing I need speak of here. I had been there a week when I was loosed one morning from my irons, and taken from work into a little hut apart, where there stood a half-dozen of the guard, and in the midst a stout wooden chair with clamps and bands. A fire burned on the floor, and there was a fume and smoke that filled the air with a smell of burned meat. My heart misgave me when I saw that chair and fire, and smelt that sickly smell, for I guessed this was a torture room, and these the torturers waiting. They forced me into the chair and bound me there with lashings and a cramp about the head; and then one took a red-iron from the fire upon the floor, and tried it a little way from his hand to prove the heat. I had screwed up my heart to bear the pain as best I might, but when I saw that iron sighed for sheer relief, because I knew it for only a branding tool, and not the torture. And so they branded me on the left cheek, setting the iron between the nose and cheek-bone, where 'twas plainest to be seen. I took the pain and scorching light enough, seeing that I had looked for much worse, and should not have made mention of the thing here at all, were it not for the branding mark they used. Now this mark was a 'Y', being the first letter of Ymeguen, and set on all the prisoners that worked there, as I found afterwards; but to me 'twas much more than a mere letter, and nothing less than the black 'Y' itself, or cross-pall of the Mohunes. Thus as a sheep is marked, with his owner's keel and can be claimed wherever he may be, so here was I branded with the keel of the Mohunes and marked for theirs in life or death, whithersoever I should wander. 'Twas three months after that, and the mark healed and well set, that I saw Elzevir again; and as we passed each other in the trench and called a greeting, I saw that he too bore the cross-pall full on his left cheek.

Thus years went on and I was grown from boy to man, and that no weak one either: for though they gave us but scant food and bad, the air was fresh and strong, because Ymeguen was meant for palace as well as fortress, and they chose a healthful site. And by degrees the moats were dug, and ramparts built, and stone by stone the castle rose till 'twas near the finish, and so our labour was not wanted. Every day squads of our fellow-prisoners marched away, and my gang was left till nearly last, being engaged in making good a culvert that heavy rains had broken down.

It was in the tenth year of our captivity, and in the twenty-sixth of my age, that one morning instead of the guard marching us to work, they handed us over to a party of mounted soldiers, from whose matchlocks and long whips I knew that we were going to leave Ymeguen. Before we left, another gang joined us, and how my heart went out when I saw Elzevir among them! It was two years or more since we had met even to pass a greeting, for I worked outside the fortress and he on the great tower inside, and I took note his hair was whiter and a sadder look upon his face. And as for the cross-pall on his cheek, I never thought of it at all, for we were all so well used to the mark, that if one bore it not stamped upon his face we should have stared at him as on a man born with but one eye. But though his look was sad, yet Elzevir had a kind smile and hearty greeting for me as he passed, and on the march, when they served out our food, we got a chance to speak a word or two together. Yet how could we find room for much gladness, for even the pleasure of meeting was marred because we were forced thus to take note, as it were, of each other's misery, and to know that the one had nothing for his old age but to break in prison, and the other nothing but the prison to eat away the strength of his prime.

Before long, all knew whither we were bound, for it leaked out we were to march to the Hague and thence to Scheveningen, to take ship to the settlements of Java, where they use transported felons on the sugar farms. Was this the end of young hopes and lofty aims—to live and die a slave in the Dutch plantations? Hopes of Grace, hopes of seeing Moonfleet again, were dead long long ago; and now was there to be no hope of liberty, or even wholesome air, this side the grave, but only burning sun and steaming swamps, and the crack of the slave-driver's whip till the end came? Could it be so? Could it be so? And yet what help was there, or what release? Had I not watched ten years for any gleam or loophole of relief, and never found it? If we were shut in cells or dungeons in the deepest rock we might have schemed escape, but here in the open, fettered up in-droves, what could we do? They were bitter thoughts enough that filled my heart as I trudged along the rough roads, fettered by my wrist to the long bar; and seeing Elzevir's white hair and bowed shoulders trudging in front of me, remembered when that head had scarce a grizzle on it, and the back was straight as the massive stubborn pillars in old Moonfleet church. What was it had brought us to this pitch? And then I called to mind a July evening, years ago, the twilight summer-house and a sweet grave voice that said, 'Have a care how you touch the treasure: it was evilly come by and will bring a curse with it.' Ay, 'twas the diamond had done it all, and brought a blight upon my life, since that first night I spent in Moonfleet vault; and I cursed the stone, and Blackbeard and his lost Mohunes, and trudged on bearing their cognizance branded on my face.

We marched back to the Hague, and through that very street where Aldobrand dwelt, only the house was shut, and the board that bore his name taken away; so it seemed that he had left the place or else was dead. Thus we reached the quays at last, and though I knew that I was leaving Europe and leaving all hope behind, yet 'twas a delight to smell the sea again, and fill my nostrils with the keen salt air.